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ElkGroveDan
Two satellites collide in orbit
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD

Posted: February 11, 2009

In an unprecedented space collision, a commercial Iridium communications satellite and a presumably defunct Russian Cosmos satellite ran into each other Tuesday above northern Siberia, creating a cloud of wreckage, officials said today.

Iridium satellite
An artist's concept of an Iridium satellite orbiting the Earth. Photo: Iridium

The international space station does not appear to be threatened by the debris, they said, but it's not yet clear whether it poses a risk to any other military or civilian satellites.

"They collided at an altitude of 790 kilometers (491 miles) over northern Siberia Tuesday about noon Washington time," said Nicholas Johnson, NASA's chief scientist for orbital debris at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "The U.S. space surveillance network detected a large number of debris from both objects."

MORE.....


http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n0902/11iridium/
OWW
Two satellites collide in orbit

Ouch. How long before LEO becomes a dangerous thick cloud of debris?
nprev
Holy crap!

Man, I knew it was getting crowded, but still amazed that it happened; the odds have to be pretty long. Article quoted Johnson from NASA as saying that there's no 'ATC' in space; maybe it's time to start thinking about establishing one.
Zvezdichko
This is bad. I hope it's not too late...
ugordan
What puzzles me is how come this collision wasn't seen coming. Usually the threatened satellite performs a collision avoidance maneuver.
nprev
I wondered that too, G. The Cosmos seemed to be dead already, but the Iridium's condition wasn't stated. All I can think is that the Russians weren't keeping tabs on the Cosmos anymore, and maybe the Iridium wasn't being tracked because it's a private spacecraft...?

There's obviously some sort of disconnect here, but not sure what it is.

EDIT: It seems that the Iridium was in fact still active, so this remains puzzling.
rlorenz
QUOTE (ElkGroveDan @ Feb 11 2009, 04:35 PM) *
Two satellites collide in orbit


Since this was a defunct satellite that hit the Iridium, it may not be quite the first
event of its type - a catalogued object (Ariane fragment) impacted the Cerise
microsatellite in 1996, severing the gravity gradient boom.
nprev
True, Ralph. I think that the 'first' here is the collision of two previously intact spacecraft, though. Seems as if the LEO environment is getting crowded enough to justify some sort of regulation in addition to intensified tracking efforts.

People have been saying this for years, of course, but it's probably time to do something about it, esp. considering the fact that there are an increasing number of nations and private concerns beginning to launch stuff in addition to the existing players. Somebody's billion-dollar baby is gonna get whacked at some point, and whoever it is will doubtless scream bloody murder; best course of action is to start formulating policies & procedures to mitigate the risk.
Geert
QUOTE (nprev @ Feb 12 2009, 05:59 PM) *
EDIT: It seems that the Iridium was in fact still active, so this remains puzzling.


Do the Iridium satellites have own maneuvering engines? The space shuttle and ISS have several times dodged potential close encounter situations, but other craft simply do not have the capacity for this (Hubble for instance...).

What surprises me is that this happened at 800 km, as far as I know there is a lot more traffic further down (ISS altitude) and/or higher up (stationary orbits). Also, what kind of orbit was the other satellite in, in other words how fast did they hit?

Worst case is a kind of chain-reaction, this has resulted in a large cloud of debris, which will slowly spiral down through all the other crowded orbits below, and it might hit other satellites in turn. Big satellites like Hubble, which can't steer themselves out of the way, are the most vulnerable, hope it stays clear!

Regards,

Geert.
ugordan
QUOTE (Geert @ Feb 12 2009, 02:35 PM) *
Do the Iridium satellites have own maneuvering engines?

I believe so, given that one of the 8 "spare" satellites will now be moved into Iridium 33's position.

QUOTE (Geert @ Feb 12 2009, 02:35 PM) *
Also, what kind of orbit was the other satellite in, in other words how fast did they hit?

Roughly polar orbits. They hit at almost a 90 degree angle and that comes out to something like 11 km/s relative velocity. Ouch.

http://spaceweather.com/swpod2009/12feb09/deak1.gif
AndyG
There's a trillion cubic kilometres of space in LEO, up to 2000km. Less than ten thousand objects above 10cm across.

A miss is as good as a mile in vacuum: I'm utterly stunned that this could occur. Paint flakes and the like, impacting in lower orbits, yes - but to quote Harry Hill...

"What are the chances of that happening?"
dvandorn
I don't know, it seems to me that, with the number of objects in orbit, this kind of thing was bound to happen sometime. I'm a little surprised that the event wasn't predicted, since there are several agencies across the globe that skin-track everything in orbit. (Where do you think those predictions come from that result in all those collision-avoidance maneuvers?)

-the other Doug
algorimancer
Yes, considering that they (apparently) routinely track fragments the size of bolts and coins (at least in LEO), I find this a tad suspicious. Just how "dead" was that Russian satellite? Not to be going off on a conspiracy rant or anything, just finding my belief a little strained here -- particularly in light of the recent Chinese and US ASAT operations.
tasp

Not to make light of this occurrence, but tracking of the resulting debris' orbital evolution could be interesting and relevant to several phenomena in the solar system. Laplace might find this to be a fascinating (serendipituous) experiment . . .





ngunn
QUOTE (tasp @ Feb 12 2009, 03:40 PM) *
fascinating (serendipituous) experiment . . .


And now at last the truth about that equatorial ridge - it's the remains of all the satellites the Iapetan's had in orbit before the first accidental collision started the Laplace cascade.
stevesliva
QUOTE (AndyG @ Feb 12 2009, 09:52 AM) *
There's a trillion cubic kilometres of space in LEO, up to 2000km. Less than ten thousand objects above 10cm across.

"What are the chances of that happening?"


I'm curious, too. But if you expand your timescale to infinity, perhaps the chance is pretty close to one. What are the chances in any given year? Any given decade? And given the choice of orbits, is the space being considered really so large?
stevesliva
QUOTE (algorimancer @ Feb 12 2009, 11:19 AM) *
Yes, considering that they (apparently) routinely track fragments the size of bolts and coins (at least in LEO), I find this a tad suspicious. Just how "dead" was that Russian satellite? Not to be going off on a conspiracy rant or anything, just finding my belief a little strained here -- particularly in light of the recent Chinese and US ASAT operations.


If it was less than dead, you'd hear about its divergence from its expected orbit.

While it's Iridium's fault, I'm surprised there was no prior warning. I would have thought the US trackers would anticipate any two objects--dead or alive--occupying the same space.
Geert
QUOTE (ugordan @ Feb 12 2009, 08:39 PM) *
They hit at almost a 90 degree angle and that comes out to something like 11 km/s relative velocity. Ouch.

http://spaceweather.com/swpod2009/12feb09/deak1.gif


That picture says it all, the more you think about it the more perplexed you are that this could happen, such a tremendously small chance...

Two satellites, each over 1 ton in weight, hitting at 11 km/sec, must have been quite some fireworks in the Siberian sky, some of the fragments might even have made it into solar orbit... Shape and progression of this debris cloud will indeed be an interesting mathematical experiment...

Regards,

Geert.
ugordan
QUOTE (stevesliva @ Feb 12 2009, 06:43 PM) *
While it's Iridium's fault, I'm surprised there was no prior warning. I would have thought the US trackers would anticipate any two objects--dead or alive--occupying the same space.

How exactly is this Iridium's fault?

As for advanced warning, I'm puzzled as well.
djellison
At 7.5km/sec - it takes about 0.00013s for a spacecraft to cover the, say, 1 metre width of an Iridium sat.

I wonder if anyone was watching it do an iridium flare at the time smile.gif


Doug
stevesliva
QUOTE (ugordan @ Feb 12 2009, 01:48 PM) *
How exactly is this Iridium's fault?

As for advanced warning, I'm puzzled as well.


Same way it's the skipper's fault if a boat runs aground on a charted shoal.
ugordan
QUOTE (stevesliva @ Feb 12 2009, 06:50 PM) *
Same way it's the skipper's fault if a boat runs aground on a charted shoal.

Bad analogy. Iridium doesn't have assets to track every conceivable, potentially harmful object in the sky. Other organizations specialized in that do. It's very likely these other organizations already know Iridium 33 is/was a functioning satellite and as such would benefit from collision predictions. Or are Iridium guys expected to go to those same organizations every day and ask "I know we asked this yesterday, but could you see if there's any possibility of a collision today?"

The skipper is blind and a third person needs to inform him if/when he gets into very shallow waters.
dvandorn
The only way in which I think you could say that the collision was Iridium's fault is in the fact that, of the two satellites, Iridium was the only one that was still "live" and had any capacity for collision avoidance.

However, just because Iridium was capable of maneuvering doesn't mean that its controllers were aware of the collision threat. I think if there is any "blame" to lay here, it's with the agencies that track the satellites, who could have sounded a warning and given Iridium's controllers the opportunity to make a collision avoidance maneuver.

-the other Doug
mcaplinger
QUOTE (dvandorn @ Feb 12 2009, 10:06 AM) *
However, just because Iridium was capable of maneuvering doesn't mean that its controllers were aware of the collision threat.

Wasn't the Cosmos stage in the published NORAD two-line element sets? I'd say that Iridium should have been looking at those.

EDIT: sure it was: COSMOS 2251, NORAD ID 22675.
djellison
QUOTE (dvandorn @ Feb 12 2009, 06:06 PM) *
doesn't mean that its controllers were aware of the collision threat.


They should have been - as MC cites, the details of the defunct satellite were available, along with most other chunks up there.

Not keeping track of your satellites and comparing them to the published NOARD elements, is like sailing along a coast without charts.
ngunn
A question - could a defunct satellite suddenly spring a leak and thereby start to deviate from it's predicted path?
stevesliva
QUOTE (ngunn @ Feb 12 2009, 02:59 PM) *
A question - could a defunct satellite suddenly spring a leak and thereby start to deviate from it's predicted path?


Or bump into something smaller first...
mcaplinger
One has to keep in mind that satellite paths are not predictable for more than a couple of weeks under any circumstance due to non-gravitational effects like drag, light pressure, etc, especially for LEO orbits. That's why NORAD regularly updates their element sets.

Unless there's reason to think that Cosmos 2251 suddenly changed course or that the data in the NORAD sets was wrong, I'd place the blame for this totally on Iridium. If they weren't looking for collisions, it was basically a hope that they would stay lucky. With 90+ satellites in LEO, they were really in a position to pay more attention.
nprev
Mike, you're right; even the GPS constellation (which is in MEO) downloads ephemeris updates to ground receivers fairly often.

Seems like the question is who's responsible for predicting such collisions? From the discussion thus far, I suspect that the US & Russia watch the ISS like a hawk, of course, and probably also all their government-owned assets (at least those that are active). Could it be that Iridium & other private spacecraft are expected to do this on their own with nothing provided to them but updated ephemerides? If so, this seems unwise & definitely not in the best interests of all stakeholders for the sole reason that nobody wants to deal with a debris cloud.
AndyG
QUOTE (djellison @ Feb 12 2009, 05:50 PM) *
At 7.5km/sec - it takes about 0.00013s for a spacecraft to cover the, say, 1 metre width of an Iridium sat.


I need to delve into the statistical probabilities, but given the apogee/perigee variation for the satellites was ~ 26km for Cosmos 2251 and ~ 15km for Iridium 33, that there was complete overlap, and that the inclinations were similar (74 versus 86.4 degrees) that's still a huge amount of sky to exactly meet one-on-one in that tenth of a microsecond that counted.

It's beyond lottery-winning "unlikely".

...But maybe it'll raise a few eyebrows and result in positive decisions for the future.

Andy
AndyG
QUOTE (stevesliva @ Feb 12 2009, 05:40 PM) *
...But if you expand your timescale to infinity, perhaps the chance is pretty close to one. What are the chances in any given year? Any given decade?


rolleyes.gif

A decade is infinitesimally smaller than infinity. Which would suggest the chance is 0.

As to "who's to blame", the answer, as Mr Newton would have to say, is "both of them". smile.gif

Andy
mcaplinger
QUOTE (nprev @ Feb 12 2009, 12:33 PM) *
Could it be that Iridium & other private spacecraft are expected to do this on their own with nothing provided to them but updated ephemerides?

That is certainly the case now, and frankly, it wouldn't have been that big a deal for Iridium to have done this. The argument could be made that it shouldn't be up to them, but absolving satellite operators of any responsibility for collision avoidance also seems like the wrong way to go.
nprev
Thanks, Mike. Wow. Think we might have found the disconnect.

Liability issues aside, spacecraft collisions present hazards to everything operating in orbit; it's a lot more than a two-party issue. IMHO, it looks like there really does need to be an orbital 'ATC' of some sort, and this doesn't have to be more than a continuously updated model; maybe 3 or 4 software engineers keeping it happy, plus a few more people to broadcast alerts.

Worth doing, and maybe a good small business idea for any of you computationally gifted types out there. The root data's provided for free... wink.gif
imipak
QUOTE (algorimancer @ Feb 12 2009, 03:19 PM) *
I find this a tad suspicious.

What are the chances that a deliberate attempt to set up a collision between orbits with those orbital characteristics would succeed? Statistics and frequency probability are deep and frequently counter-intuitive waters.

stevesliva
QUOTE (AndyG @ Feb 12 2009, 04:48 PM) *
that's still a huge amount of sky to exactly meet one-on-one in that tenth of a microsecond that counted.


Tenth of a millisecond wink.gif 5000 tries per year... but I getcha. Not only do the orbits have to exactly intersect, but they have to be at the point of intersection at the same time.

Making the wrong assumption that two orbits will always intersect at exactly one place, with a 100 minute orbit, the chances of being at that particular place are 6000/.00013= 1 in 46 million per orbit? And then say it does 50000 orbits/decade-- a 0.108% chance of it happening in a decade. (Times 70 satellites)

No idea what the chances are of two orbits intersecting, though. And I know they probably don't, for long. Brings the chances way down. So if they intersect once per day, divide by 3650, for a .0000296% chance, about 1 in 3.4 million.

That does get you up into winning-the-lottery range.
OWW
Speculation: Maybe Cosmos 2251 very recently suffered an (undetected) fragmentation and the debris cloud intersected with Iridium's orbit.
AndyG
QUOTE (OWW @ Feb 12 2009, 09:31 PM) *
Speculation: Maybe Cosmos 2251 very recently suffered an (undetected) fragmentation and the debris cloud intersected with Iridium's orbit.

It helps the odds immensely. And a tiny lumplet, at 11km/s, would do the job.

Andy
nprev
Thing is, all the press reports seem to imply a head-on collision. Were there any hints that the Cosmos had a pre-existing associated debris cloud?

Lots we don't know; a very odd event.
ngunn
QUOTE (stevesliva @ Feb 12 2009, 07:29 PM) *
Or bump into something smaller first...


A very good point. One would expect the first event to lead to others. Would we necessarily detect the first one, or would we catch on a little later in the process?

I'm not so sanguine as some of the the statistical assessments above. I think we have a serious problem here.
djellison
QUOTE (AndyG @ Feb 12 2009, 08:48 PM) *
It's beyond lottery-winning "unlikely".


For any one satellite on any one orbit - yes.

But 3000 satellites, orbiting 14 times a day, 365 days a year, for, say, 10 years - and infact, it's not beyond the realms of possible in any way shape or form.

Doug
dvandorn
Statistics are what people play around with while awaiting actual empirical data.

We now have empirical data. Put enough satellites and associated pieces of crap in orbit and, eventually, things start colliding. That's not a statistical analysis -- it's the empirical description of an observed phenomenon.

Also remember that, for everything that actually occurs, the statistical likelihood of it having happened is exactly 1 in 1. wink.gif And as for the "lottery-winning" odds, please keep in mind that, at least in the United States, lotteries with odds of a single given person winning that work out to something like 100 million to one are won by *someone* every few weeks. So, while the odds that one given satellite may impact another given satellite may be very, very low, the odds that *some* satellite out there will collide with some *other* satellite are obviously a lot higher.

-the other Doug
kwan3217
From the http://www.satobs.org/seesat/Feb-2009/index.html SeeSat-L list: Closest predicted approach of the two objects was 800m plus or minus whatever the error in a two-line element is. There are six predicted close approaches within 100m in the next five days. Closest one is something like 52m. http://celestrak.com/SOCRATES/top10minrange.asp . Probably none of them will collide. One of the guys on SeeSat says that these two didn't even make the top 10 hazard list.

You pays your money and you takes your chance. Just because something bad happened doesn't mean that someone is at fault. If you are running Iridium, maybe you have a conjunction like this once every couple of days with one of your satellites. You have to maneuver to dodge, and maneuver again to get back into the proper slot. Do that enough and you will run out of gas a lot faster than just doing nothing.

And, I highly recommend SeeSat. It is for Earth orbiters what UMSF is for the rovers.
ilbasso
They have moved the ISS orbit - what, 8 times? - because of a satellite coming within a few miles of the predicted location. That's a pretty large area of uncertainty. I'm trying to imagine a scenario where they require every active satellite that might pass within a few miles of another piece of debris change its orbit. How many satellites would be changing their orbits every year, and how badly would that complicate the job of those who are trying to keep track of them all? Is it worth the hassle to do all that moving for an incredibly low probability that any one of those "near misses" might be a collision? Yes, for a manned vehicle. It depends, for an unmanned one - depends on criticality of function, etc etc.
PFK
QUOTE (ugordan @ Feb 12 2009, 01:39 PM) *
They hit at almost a 90 degree angle and that comes out to something like 11 km/s relative velocity. Ouch.

Large Hadron Collider, who needs it?! smile.gif
nprev
The only thing to be sure of is that this event is gonna increase costs for private LEO flights. It's a pretty safe bet that the insurers are going to factor this in for all future policies.
ngunn
I don't get this (from spaceweather):

"This injection of debris substantially increases the population of space junk at altitudes near 800 km. Collisions are now more likely than ever. Fortunately, the International Space Station orbits Earth at a much lower altitude, 350 km, so it is in no immediate danger. The Hubble Space Telescope is not so safe at 610 km. In the days ahead, researchers will carefully study the make-up and dynamics of the debris cloud to estimate when bits will begin to drift down to lower altitudes."

If you collide two (equal) objects at 90 degrees you'd kill one-over-root-2 of the velocity right there. Far from expecting the debris to spread out at the same altitude and only drift down slowly I'd expect a lot of it to fall down pretty quickly.

ugordan
QUOTE (ngunn @ Feb 13 2009, 12:58 PM) *
If you collide two (equal) objects at 90 degrees you'd kill one-over-root-2 of the velocity right there. Far from expecting the debris to spread out at the same altitude and only drift down slowly I'd expect a lot of it to fall down pretty quickly.

You're assuming a totally inelastic collision. What appears to have happened is that two distinct debris clouds were created that roughly follow original objects' orbits.
tedstryk
QUOTE (AndyG @ Feb 12 2009, 02:52 PM) *
There's a trillion cubic kilometres of space in LEO, up to 2000km. Less than ten thousand objects above 10cm across.

A miss is as good as a mile in vacuum: I'm utterly stunned that this could occur. Paint flakes and the like, impacting in lower orbits, yes - but to quote Harry Hill...

"What are the chances of that happening?"


That math isn't really fitting, since satellites are not distributed randomly. Based on the launch site and purpose, certain types of orbits are used far more than others.
ngunn
QUOTE (ugordan @ Feb 13 2009, 12:03 PM) *
You're assuming a totally inelastic collision.


I know - a VERY crude approximation just to make the general point.

Kinetic energy was lost (a lot of it since both satellites were completely destroyed) so the mean velocity of the fragments must be less than it was before the collision. Most will therefore be moving too slowly to remain in circular orbit and so must drop down to a lower perigee at the antipodal point.
remcook
And that's the reason why they expect most bits to burn in the atmosphere relatively soon. Yet the apogee stays at the same altitude in that case. And some bits will probably gain a bit of momentum (for instance, if stuff like fuel explodes or just being ejected in the right direction) and move a bit in one direction and/or their orbital plane will change a bit and their orbital periods will be slightly different, so things will spread out eventually. The amount of energy lost during the collision is probably not so high as you imagine relative to the enormous amount of energy they had, since the material of the structures must not have given much resistance to such an impact.
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